#MeToo Shows Sexual Harassment And Abuse Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The Facebook status is simple:

Me too. If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste, if you’re comfortable doing so.

And effective: it has produced a deluge of “Me too” statuses. The vast majority are produced by women–with varying levels of detail–though some men have also spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault (mostly by other men.) The ubiquity of this status is appalling and shocking and revealing. And the news isn’t good. As long as we have a society founded on patriarchy and sexism and a constructed masculinity where one gender (or sex) is set up as the ideal, the other is well, othered, where the superior gender is granted seemingly indiscriminate power while the inferior one is rendered comparatively powerless, where social arrangements and understandings turn sex into an ideological instrument for bodily and social control, which treats one gender’s sexuality as a sacrament and another’s as a sin, sexual assault and harassment will remain societal features not bugs. The current state of affairs–a population made up of those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment–is an eventuality foretold.

A masculinity grounded in violence and sexual superiority–in prowess, capacity, ability, virtue–is an integral part of such a system. Men must acquire masculinity or show that they already possess it by acts of violence or sexuality; it is no surprise that male icons and role models–historic and present–embody some form of violent domination or an exaggerated sexuality. (The current president of the United States rose to power on the basis of campaign that featured extensive bragging about how violent he could be if the opportunity arose, the length of his penis, and the unbridled assault he was fond of launching on unsuspecting women.) Notches on a belt can indicate both kills and sexual conquests. Male sexual virtue is matter of performance and power; female sexual virtue is grounded in reticence and inaccessibility, in zealously protecting ‘the goods.’ Assertions of will to exert sexual control now appear virtuous within this schema: the male must, if ‘necessary’, override the assertion of will by the ‘inferior gender’ and assert his sexuality, the dominant and superior one, at its expense. If violence be a tool in this ‘conquest,’ then so be it. (Of course, as many women have pointed out, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex, it is about power and domination, of the forceful imposition of a will over someone whose desires and rights are not worthy of consideration in the calculus of masculinity.)

Men do not seem to realize that patriarchy does not work for them either; the notions of masculinity it imposes on them cripples their relationships, drives them into dead-ends of despair at their failures to conform, and of course, to commit acts of violence against each other. ‘Pussies’ and ‘faggots’ and ‘wimps who can’t get laid’ know this only too well. One way in which they can redeem themselves is to turn their inward directed self-disgust elsewhere. Perhaps at children, at women, at other men.

The ‘Ideal Marriage’ And Its Painful Sexual Ignorance

In Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992, pp. 32-33), Richard Rhodes writes:

Somehow I acquired a copy of Dutch physician T. H. van de Velde‘s Ideal Marriage, published in the United States in 1926, the most popular marriage manual in American until The Joy of Sex came along. Ideal Marriage was wise and tender about love abut euphemistically vague and sometimes criminally misinformed about sex. Van de Velde promulgated the sexist conviction that both partners in an act of intercourse should come to orgasm at the same time. “In normal and perfect coitus,” I read in his book and believed for years afterward, “mutual orgasm must be almost simultaneous; the usual procedure is that the mans’ ejaculation begins and sets the acme of sensation in train at once.” Impossible to measure how much pain that single ignorant sentence caused. It must have baffled hundreds and thousands of men and agonized hundreds of thousands, at least, of women. I took it for God’s truth when I read it–wasn’t it printed in a book? How did Van de Velde arrive at such a bizarre conclusion? From his own experience? From unsupported theory?

Color me baffled too, even if I cannot, like Rhodes, blame Van de Velde for this state of affairs. I did lay my hands on de Velde’s book as a pre-teen boy–a furtive glance or two at a copy that my parents owned, tucked away in some secret hiding place, which I had miraculously uncovered. My heart racing as I realized I was dealing with an illicit text that purported to reveal the secrets and mysteries of an increasingly intriguing and alluring zone of human interaction, I quickly leafed through its pages before hastily replacing it in its sanctum sanctorum and backing away. I promised to return when I had more time, when I was less worried about being caught, but that moment never came again.

But the myth that de Velde sought to perpetuate made the rounds anyway; perhaps in the softcore pulp fiction that I read like a maniac in my pre-teen and teen years, or perhaps in the way that sex was depicted on screen where matters proceeded smoothly between two equally competent partners with nary a touch of awkwardness, anxiety, insecurity, clumsiness, or dissatisfaction. An education–in many dimensions–awaited me in my sexually mature years. Euphemisms and bravado would count for little; only the right kind of hand waving would do.

Note: I own a copy of Alex Comfort‘s The Joy of Sex; a girlfriend and I bought it as a giggle many years ago, and we took turns snickering at its artful pencil drawings and sometimes purple prose. It had dated a little too quickly and now seemed corny (and sexist in all too many of its recommendations and observations.) As I browsed its pages, I was reminded of the computer nerd’s response to Comfort’s catchy title: a guidebook to the X-Windows System titled The Joy of X. I don’t own a copy of that but I wish I did.

Being ‘Appearance-Challenged’ When Looks Matter

Many years ago, an uncle of mine was talking about one of my distant cousins:  about how hard it would be for her to get married, because she was, you know, kind of, how do you say it, “ugly”? He didn’t use the word, of course. He said something like “Her face is a little, you know, kind of…” And then his voice trailed off. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Her looks were a singularity of sorts, a precipice to be approached with care, perhaps alluded to, hinted at, but not addressed. She faced spinsterhood as a punishment; why make matters worse with that kind of explicit reference?

A dozen or so years ago, in the course of a drunken conversation with my girlfriend and her friends, one of them, giggling loudly, said she always felt sorry for “ugly” people and always said a silent prayer when she saw one on New York City’s streets: “Girl, I’m so sorry this happened to you, but thank God it didn’t happen to me.” She was thankful that in life’s sweepstakes, her cards had come out just right. She had been saved, she had dodged the bullet; she could now try to make her way through this world unencumbered by homeliness of the worst kind.

So, pity in the first instance, and in the second too. In both cases, the appearance-challenged were women; in the first case, a particular woman, in the second, a class of women. (Though the initial reference was to “ugly people”, my interlocutor’ s use of “girl” seemed to indicate she had women in mind.)

Both these folks were correct in one cruel sense; we are an appearance-obsessed society. Looks matter. The data confirms it: if you are ‘good-looking’, you get more interviews, better jobs, higher salaries, live longer lives. You get better service in restaurants and stores; you’ll get seats offered to you. (Though there seems to be some evidence that being attractive works better for men than it does for women.) Psychologists have offered a variety of explanations for this bias–some of them, unsurprisingly enough, evolutionary in flavor. You can guess the outlines of those: partner-seeking takes many forms, including hiring at the workplace, or taking better care of your clients.

And so, my uncle saw his niece’s looks as a curse; she would not be able to find a suitable groom; she would be rejected again and again–as indeed, till that stage in point she had been, though I do not know if her looks were ever cited as the reason for why. And then, she would become a source of anxiety for her parents; perhaps even an economic burden. My ‘friend’–I use the scare quotes because I was never very friendly with her–also saw the looks of the folks she pitied as a curse. They wouldn’t be able to hook up; they would not be able to score; they would not be able to enjoy their youth’s appropriate quota of sexual abandon.

Talk of beauty being skin-deep was never going to make much headway against such deeply rooted discomfort.

Note: Needless to say, our society regards obesity as a form of ugliness, which, because it seems like a personal failing is to be castigated in especially severe terms.


Marty Hart Comes Undone

The fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective–“Who Goes There”–is justifiably famous for director Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s epic six-minute tracking take of a gun battle gone spectacularly, violently wrong. There is another scene in the episode that should be just as famous: Marty Hart‘s epic, rage and profanity-filled meltdown on finding out his wife Maggie has left him (after his paramour Lisa Tragnetti has ratted him out to her.)

A recap: Hart comes home to find packed suitcases and a note waiting for him. He reads the note–with no voiceover for the viewer–his face contorted by shock, anger, and fear. He then calls Lisa to find out if his worst fears are true. The next couple of minutes are absolutely terrifying.

Marty’s conversation with Lisa is as horrifying as it is because we witness the shocking transformation of two humans–formerly bound by sexual intimacy and shared confidences–into creatures possessed by a seemingly boundless mutual hatred. Hart is forced to channel his anger through an impersonal instrument, the phone, but it is visibly and viscerally present in his expressions, his bulging veins, his reddened visage, his clenched teeth; it is the closest I’ve seen a human being come to embodying a controlled detonation.

Marty’s anger is especially frightening because we know it is animated by fear. To Marty, Lisa has transformed herself into something dangerous and vicious; she is capable of great damage and harm; she has suddenly revealed a power once hidden; she is unafraid to use it. Marty is terrified by her, petrified by the knowledge he has consorted with such a monster. She is now beyond the control he thought he exerted over her; their past intimacy now appears as mere prelude for this betrayal. Marty is floundering; he has had the wind knocked out of him by Lisa; through his rage, he attempts to find a grounding in a bewildering new world.

But most frighteningly of all, Marty’s rage is impotent. He cannot shovel sand back into the hourglass; he cannot roll back Lisa’s communique; he cannot undo his affair; he cannot even bring Maggie to the phone. He rages and rages, not just at Lisa, but at himself, at the arrangements of this universe that place the past out of reach, that expose us again and again to such terrible finality. He can curse and commit himself to the deadliest of acts, but only for the future. The past is done and dusted.

Our daily composure is commonly understood as an elaborate construction, a holding back of the forces that fray us around the edges and threaten to pull us apart; it is often unable to resist the various insults sent its way. At those moments, we ‘lose our shit’, we come undone; we slump, the accumulated tension too great to bear. Watching another’s decay thus is frightening because it reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility; it tells us we may suffer a similar fate, unable to take refuge behind our daily facade of normalcy.

Beauvoir, Morrison and Gordimer on Sex

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that a conceptual inversion of the sexual act was possible: perhaps woman was not merely ‘penetrated’ or ‘entered into’ by man, perhaps she ‘enveloped’ or ‘engulfed’ him instead. Sex was not an ‘invasion’ of the woman, it was an active seeking out instead. The change in perspective engendered by considering what could be a woman’s understanding of the act was radical indeed, and experienced as such by many of those who read The Second Sex. I understood this shift at one intellectual level and did not at yet another.

Till I read Toni Morrison‘s Sula (Knopf, New York, 1973). In it, when Sula has sex with Ajax, she “stood wide-legged against the wall and pulled from his track-lean hips all the pleasure her thighs could hold.” (pp. 125)  Now, I understood a little better. Here again, was woman active, possessing sexual agency, not the passive receiver of sexual attention but the active dispenser of it. She did not have something ‘put inside her’, she ‘pulled’ it to herself, the limits of that exchange only demarcated by her own desire and ability. It’s been some twenty-two years since I first read that line, and I have never forgotten it, so suddenly did it come on me as I read Sula, and so distinctive was the reconfiguration of sexual politics that it forced upon me.

Here is another literary take on the conceptual revision that Beauvoir suggested. In The Late Bourgeois World (Penguin, New York, 1966), Nadine Gordimer‘s narrator Liz Van Den Sandt ruminates over an interesting dimension of her sexual relationship with Graham:

Yet when he’s inside me–last night–there’s the strangest thing. He’s much better than someone my own age, he comes to me with a solid and majestic erection that will last as long as we choose. Sometimes he will be in me for an hour and I can put my hand on my belly and feel the blunt head, like a standard upheld, through my flesh. But while he fills me, while you’d think the last gap in me was closed for ever, while we lie there silent I get the feeling that I am the one who has drawn him up into my flesh, I am the one who holds him there, that I am the one who has him helpless. If I flex the muscles inside me, it’s as if I were throttling someone. He doesn’t speak; the suffering of pleasure shuts his eyes, the lids are tender without his glasses. And even when he brings about the climax for us–afterwards I am still holding him as if strangled; warm, thick, dead, inside. [pp. 37-38]

I suspect there are men who would find this description disconcerting–the more ‘sensitive’ among them might even be offended–and indeed, it was probably meant to be so. But hopefully, equally many men and women will find in this little passage echoes of the same species of altered perspective that Beauvoir urged us to adopt, and that Morrison so expertly captured and described.